Tagged: education.

What I talk about when I talk about freedom.

A few many years ago, when I still worked part time at a cafe for $8 an hour after school, I used to envy the people who worked in the shopping mall full time.

I envied their freedom because to me, it seemed like they could do whatever they wanted with their lives. One of the girls I worked with had her first baby at 19, and at that time it felt like there were so many paths in life that I could not go down (although in retrospect, I didn’t exactly want most of those paths) and that my life was constrained by norms and expectations set by the people around me.

I was not free.

I felt like I was not free, but in fact I could not have been more free. Walking around the suburbs of Beijing and seeing all the school children in their tracksuit uniforms is one of those moments that has really forced me to revisit my perspectives on what I mean when I complain about not having enough freedom.

Are these children here ‘free’? The short answer is no, and the long answer is also no.

The short answer is that children raised here live an incredibly prescribed life. From the school that they attend and the supplementary weekend and evening classes, down to the friends that they are allowed to make, every decision of their life is a calculated decision made by their parents in an equation that balances financial means with the competition. If all the other parents are sending their children to olympiad math classes, then you better damn make sure that your kid is also taking olympiad math classes.

The long answer is that even for the children who are fortunate enough to receive an adequate education, they are not free to do as they please. 

Entrance into university is heavily restricted (suicide by high school students during the gaokao period is seen as a normal, although tragic, phenomenon) not to mention the later struggles in life in the workforce, and for boys, the struggle to be eligible for dating and marriage.

Like in many other places in the world, effort and hard work is not proportionate to reward and outcome.

I used to think of freedom in terms of the things that I couldn’t do. For the foolish 16 year old that I was, this included (stupid) things like dropping out of school and not going to university. 

I now think of freedom in terms of the things that I can do. I took, and still take, my university education for granted. I look at the options that I think about when I think about my future, and compare that to the options of the twenty-something-year-old girl who served me food at a restaurant earning some 3000 RMB a month and working 60 hour weeks.

Even to take a basic thing like access to healthcare - the country that you live in very much determines whether you can receive treatment or not.

When I was young, I truly believed that I could do anything with my life. There was nothing (as far as my seven or eight year old mind could tell) that would ever stop me from being the person I wanted to be. The children that I walk by everyday here in Beijing begin with an understanding of all the things that they cannot do. 

I was wrong to measure my freedom by the number of doors that were closed for me, because I took for granted all those open doors that I didn’t (and still don’t) even know about.

05:53 am, by aliceandlife 4  |  Comments

A Life Education.

One of the things about being on what is essentially the “board of directors” for a university is having to make those ugly but commercially necessary decisions that you, being a thrifty student, feel uncomfortable making.

There is ‘the university’ for all its noble glory, and then there is ‘the university’ as an institution and commercial enterprise.

One of the realities of society right now is a shift away from the arts and towards the areas of innovation and technology which are expected to not only propel our economy towards a new era of growth, but also to revolutionise the way we live our lives - much like how personal computers and the internet have changed mine.

But what that means is a sudden exodus of funding out of the arts. Our national orchestra struggles to keep itself alive. The BA is being scrapped as being too “soft” of a degree.

As Princeton says in Avenue Q, what do you do with a BA in English? It seems so ironic that I would love his song.

My instinct, as a former philosophy major, was to protest loudly that scientists and engineers are not ‘thinkers’ in the same way that arts students are. But I realised that most arts students aren’t all thinkers by definition, and even those that are have little desire to venture outside their academic highchair and talk to the world outside their own discipline.

What a BA produces at its highest level, then, are thinkers that think - but for most people, what they think is irrelevant (or inaccessible) to their day-to-day life.

One of the deficits of our education system is that it is too narrow. The example that comes to mind is the brilliant student with brilliant ideas but who struggles to communicate his ideas to others, or the engineer with a great new product design but no commercial skills to bring that product to market. In an increasingly complex world, the processes and functions also become increasingly complex such that we now need specialists in every ‘field’ thinkable.

Generalists are a thing of the past.

I don’t know whether it’s just wishful thinking but somehow education in the academic sense gets completely isolated from education in the practical sense - and we need to bring it back together. I might have a degree in economics but give me a practical economics problem and I’d probably be using more common sense than any true economic theory.

I hate to say it but I’m really starting to wonder where the value of a university education is really coming from - whether it’s valuable in and of itself, or just as a marker to tell the “real” world that hey, we’re smart on a GPA scale and therefore employable - the end.

05:07 pm, by aliceandlife 7  |  Comments

A ‘tiger’ coach.

It is not uncommon for Asian children to have never heard a word of praise from their parents’ mouths, even when they are well into their late 20s and 30s and incredibly successful individuals. It’s not that their parents don’t care for, or love them. It’s just that they think the best way to encourage their children to achieve their very best is to never tell them that they are good but to point out every flaw and every fault.

That way, you know what you need to work on. And then you’ll never stop striving to better yourself (or so the theory goes).

On the other hand, you have a generation of children growing up on the belief that they are always ‘good’, as long as they try. If you observed one of my piano lessons, I’m sure the word count for the number of times I say “good” and “well done” over the duration of a half an hour lesson hits well into the double digits easily. It keeps them motivated and it keeps them engaged. Most importantly, the parents were paying for their chilfren to have fun. 

Having taught at both an “Asian” music studio and “modern” music school, I’ve realised just how different the drive and discipline of the two ‘types’ of student are.

The kids who are brought up to believe that they are always good are much less willing to persevere with something they are bad at. They aren’t prepared to work as hard, and are quite resistant to learning new things - something they aren’t already ‘good’ at.

I recently read an article about a Coach Fitz and there’s a quote from it that I particularly like. It goes like this:

”I know about parents. I know how much they love to say, ‘I pay $14,000 in tuition, and so my little boy deserves to play.’

No way. You earn the right to play.”

And I think that’s quite right. People need to put in the hard miles to earn and deserve certain privileges. Looking at the people that I’ve met at university, you can almost separate them into two types - those who are too afraid to try anything they might be crap at, and those who think so highly of themselves that they refuse to appreciate their own weaknesses. Both are resistant to change.

I certainly don’t endorse the Asian style of parenting but I think sometimes that the world of coaching and teaching has gone too soft. Future generations (including my own) are growing up too sheltered from adversity, and never truly understanding “it”:

"It” was the importance of battling one’s way through all the easy excuses life offers for giving up.

Fitz had a gift for addressing this psychological problem, but he was no longer permitted to use it. ”The trouble is,” he said, ”every time I try, the parents get in the way.” 

03:49 pm, by aliceandlife 4  |  Comments

What my public school education gave me.

I’ve just finished reading an article titled: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education and found myself agreeing with much of what the author said. 

Much to my mother’s disappointment, I insisted on attending a co-ed public high school which was considered to be in one of the relatively poorer areas of Auckland. Avondale College (or "Avondangerous") is a decile 4 school (out of a maximum of 10 for the highest socioeconomic background) and thus puts it in the ‘poorer’ half of the nation.

I don’t believe that decile bands say much about the quality of education you receive, but it certainly says much about the exposure to people that you get. The parents of my classmates were not partners in major accounting or law firms. Nor were they leading professors or the top surgeons in our hospitals. They are not CEOs of million-dollar businesses and organisations, and I did not grow up being surrounded by the ‘successful’ people in society.

Our parents had modest backgrounds and we had modest dreams.

I completely understand why parents might want to send their children to the best elite schools - not only will they be surrounded by people who will get places later in life (think Eton in the UK) but statistics matter. When you compare the university admissions rate of a decile 10 school with that of a decile 4 school, it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to believe that your child have a greater chance of being ‘successful’ attending the decile 10 school.

There are, of course, always exceptions to this. 

When I first started at university, I must admit I was a little ashamed of my background. Like the Dean of the Business School once said, most of the students under his school come from affluent families who never spare a thought to the cost of their education. I know that for my high school friends who actually made it to university study, it’s easy to feel like you’re struggling alone in amongst a society of high achieving and financially well off cohorts. 

But the older I get, the more I begin to appreciate the value of my high school education. Someone once remarked that high achieving students converge at the top. When you take a walk down to our law school, it doesn’t take long before you see an evolution of homogenous, corporate hopefuls.

I should say that perhaps I am an exception because I was self-motivated and curious enough to take the opportunities available to me. Your background shapes your values in a big way and many of my incredibly talented friends became lost in the system because they were never pushed, by the people around them - whether it be family or peers, to realise their true abilities and potential.

In many ways, I am a homogenous ‘high achiever’. Just yesterday, someone remarked that I look and talk like I grew up in Parnell. I didn’t know whether to be offended or not, because I know that in equally many ways, I am also different.

And that is something that I am proud of.

My high school education taught me humility. It taught me how to respect the life paths others and to understand that there is value in every human being - irrespective of whether they have credentials after their names or what their paycheck looks like. It taught me how to empathise with others and how to form friendships, not networks.

It taught me to question what my version of ‘success’ looked like and helped me see that the most ‘successful’ people are those invisible heros in our own local communities that you miss as ordinary people on the streets.

It taught me the importance of gratitude, compassion, and the value of having intimate friendships and relationships. It taught me that having the right attitude is so much more important than having a long list of achievements, and that a CV says little about you as a person because it’s what you can do, not what you have done, which is most important.

My friends who have explored different life paths - those who have married, had children, chosen to skip study for the workforce - have taught me that life is now and not something that begins after we’ve ticked everything off our list of ‘to-do’s.

I’ve learnt to think for myself. And as a result of having much less to lose, I’ve also learnt to become comfortable with who I am, and not the image of success painted by a society with values fundamentally different from my own.

So many people worry that they’re not moving down the ‘right’ path, but perhaps the ‘wrong’ path is really the right one. I certainly look back now and do not regret having not listened to my mother at the time in choosing the school which looked, superficially, like the one that would bring me the least ‘success’.

I think the article is a wonderful read but if you’re feeling lazy, here is my favourite paragraph:

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

05:57 pm, by aliceandlife 14  |  Comments

The learning good.

Having just had a terribly busy week with university, work and life in general, I’ve gotten incredibly good at the economics of life - using the minimum amount of effort and time to reap the maximum rewards.

It’s not surprising that I felt incredibly cheated walking out of my Advanced Microeconomics test, having spent a lot of time nailing all the difficult theory questions only to discover that the questions asked required only a shallow level of comprehension.

Part of me felt that it was unfair for those people who hadn’t spent very much time understanding the course to nonetheless get the same mark as me - I totally knew my stuff, and I should be acknowledged for it. Unfortunately the only acknowledgement I was to get for my obsessive microeconomics study was my poor preparation for my International Trade test the evening after and the miserable looking grade that will be awaiting me after midsemester break.

I sometimes think the problem with university is that extra effort isn’t often appreciated. It’s not that I’m desperately wanting a nicely laminated certificate for  effort hanging in my room, but that what university study rewards is not learning per se, but learning to the extent that you get good marks. 

I think we’re all guilty of skipping sections of the course, however interesting, that we know are not examinable. And for economics at least, we remember how to work out problems without actually understanding what it is that you’re doing, or why.

I remember reading an article late last year about what it is that university education ought to be achieving. The writer believed that university should be a place that teaches us to think - it’s not so much the content which is important, but the skill of learning and applying. Being able to master increasingly complex models. Developing our arguments. Original thought.

Oh, original thought. The stress of my life. One of the reasons why I took philosophy was because I thought it pushed boundaries and challenged critical thinking. Philosophy essays take an awful lot of time to write, because they require this nifty think called original thought. They are hard work. I dislike them, because essays where you just regurgitate information you’ve already learnt in an intelligent way is so much easier.

Hard work is hard. Challenges are hard.

I will continue to whine and groan about the things I do in philosophy because they require so much engagement with what it is that you’re studying.

They are time consuming. My utility maximising model of maximum rewards for minimum effort no longer applies.

Yet I feel like that is the purpose of learning - that we challenge our conceptions and begin to have our own ideas. Because there are so many aspects of the global order we live in that ought to be challenged. There would be no development if people didn’t strive to continuously push the bar. Innovation and critique should be more highly valued in our education system than just good grades and a sharp mind. So many brilliant minds get phased out because their exam technique isn’t quite on the spot.

I feel like an education revolution is coming soon.

Ah well, though probably not in my day. Back to my utility maximising model I go.

10:11 pm, by aliceandlife  Comments

a really interesting video :)

11:05 pm, by aliceandlife 2  |  Comments